It’s nearly impossible to escape the onslaught of anxiety-inducing information swirling around in the news each day surrounding COVID-19, the novel coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe. Then layer on the added stress of working from home, layoffs and furloughs, home-schooling your children, the economic downturn, and trying to stock up on groceries and other household essentials — it’s no wonder so many people are in panic-mode. It seems the only thing more contagious than coronavirus is the stress it’s causing.
Aside from making you feel miserable, stress has been proven to decrease the body’s lymphocytes, the white blood cells that help fight infection. That, in turn, makes your body a more favorable host for viruses — the very thing you’re hoping to avoid. Not to mention, sleepless nights spent worrying instead of catching zzz’s also negatively impacts your immune system. In short? We must work to manage stress and anxiety now more than ever.
“Often we can’t control the circumstances that bring stress to our lives and daily routines,” says NYC-based psychiatrist Dr. Zlatin Ivanov. “However, we can try to master how we respond and react to every situation.”
If you feel immense stress or if it’s becoming overwhelming, here are some steps you can take to help reduce it:
1. Enjoy the outdoors.
Unless you’re truly in quarantine, there’s no reason you have to spend all day indoors. “Get outside as much as possible,” urges Dr. Gabrielle Francis, a naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist practicing in New York City as The Herban Alchemist. “We have access to full-spectrum sunlight every day, even when it’s cloudy and cold. Just walk outside for 20-30 minutes per day allowing the sunlight to touch a small area of your skin, such as face, arms or hands. This must be done without sunscreen to get the benefit.” The sunlight activates vitamin D, a hormone that helps to enhance immune function, and enhances our production of feel-good hormones such as serotonin, melatonin, endorphins and testosterone.
2. Take a deep breath.
It may seem like a natural bodily function, but you’d be surprised how stress impacts your breathing. “Take breaks throughout the day for a breathing exercise,” says Dr. Francis. “Breathe in through the nose for 5 seconds, breathe out through the mouth for 5 seconds. It only takes 10 cycles to help reset your mind and emotions.”
3. Commit to physical activity.
With your gym closed and limited options at home, you may think working out is a thing of the past. But you can still find ways to move your body and release those feel-good endorphins. “Work a workout into your busy schedule with just five-minute bursts,” says Stephanie Mansour, certified personal trainer and yoga instructor. "You don't need to do a complete overhaul of your workout routine and subscribe to a paid fitness service or have expensive equipment delivered. Simply turn on your favorite song and dance around your living room, grab water bottles and cans of soups to use as hand weights for bicep curls and shoulder presses, or jump rope on your porch.” Just five minutes of exercise a day may not seem like it'll make a dent in weight loss or overall fitness, but the boost in your mood will be undeniable. Who knows? After a week, you may even want to go for 10 minutes a day.
4. Stay in the present.
With so much uncertainty, it can be easy to let your mind wander down the dangerous path of wondering what the future holds. Instead, look for ways to live in the moment. “Play ‘I spy’ with someone,” suggests M. Dawn Jonas, NMD, naturopathic physician and assistant professor at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. “This game forces us to be visually present and search your local surroundings to guess what our playmate has ‘spied’ as they provide clues to help you along.” Essentially, it can break a negative cycle of thoughts.
5. Increase your magnesium intake.
Did you know that magnesium is sometimes referred to as the anti-stress mineral? “Under mental stress, the body can be depleted of magnesium,” says Susan Piergeorge, RD, MSN, a nutritionist for Natural Vitality. “Magnesium can help regulate certain neurotransmitters like GABA, which is associated with calming brain activity. When healthy magnesium levels are restored, our bodies are better able to manage stress; conversely, when our magnesium stores become depleted, our vulnerability to stress increases.”
6. Cook a meal.
If you’re sheltering in place, cooking is inevitable. But don’t look at it as a chore. “Cooking meals at home can offer a sense of peace and relaxation,” says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, author of The Better Period Food Solution. “That’s because when cooking something from start to finish and completing a task, your brain associates it with positivity and feel-good hormones.”
7. Love on your pet.
“If you have a fluffy one at home, give them a hug, or take them in your lap and pet them,” says Dr. Ivanov. “If you don’t have a pet, try watching some funny animal videos, which should also help you reduce stress.” Many animal shelters are currently offering low-cost or free adoptions, so if you’ve been debating adding a new pet to your home, now’s a great time to do so.
8. Reminisce about your favorite memories.
Dr. Ivanov suggests opening an old photo album or scrolling through some photos on your phone of when you were happy or did something fun. “Play some videos to cheer you up,” he says. “Good memories can bring peace to your mind when you’re stressed.”
9. Try the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method.
This exercise requires you to notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel in your body, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Why play along? “You immerse yourself fully in the present moment, which is grounding,” says Teresa Brenneman, a Reiki Level 3 practitioner and owner of Be A Lion Healing Services. “Grounding frees the mind from bouncing around between anxious thoughts and intense emotions, centering and calming us instead. This is incredibly helpful during moments of panic or anxiety. You instead feel immediately connected to the here-and-now.”
10. Outsource your stress.
Instead of holding everything in, give your stress away. No, not to your spouse or Facebook friends. “Designate a prayer box or container to hold your worries for you,” says Dr. Jonas. “Write down the worries or the problems you cannot solve on small slips of paper and put them in the box. Designate your source of spirit (i.e., inner self, higher power, God, angels, Universe, etc.) to handle this for you in the meantime.”
11. Reduce information overload.
Yes, it’s important to stay informed, but that doesn’t mean you need to be tuned in day and night. “Watching the news 24/7 or continuously scrolling through social media feeds will likely increase anxiety,” warns neuroscience and wellness expert Patrick Porter, Ph.D. “Monitor this intake and establish boundaries for checking updates. Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories and choose reliable, unbiased sources for information like CDC and WHO.”